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Blu-ray Review: Altered States

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The Film

Altered States is a half-baked science-fiction/body-horror hybrid that makes the mistakes of not treating its subject matter seriously enough and often processing the material in the most on-the-nose manner possible. Adapted from Paddy Chayefsky’s only novel and directed by the great Ken Russell in somewhat for-hire mode, the film certainly has the pedigree to be great. The blame for the fact that it’s not can be spread around — frequently histrionic performances, a shallow consideration of the source material’s difficult ideas, hallucinogenic imagery that often feels bizarre for bizarre’s sake only.

Altered States

Russell’s images are frequently striking, to be sure, and not only in his daring trip-out sequences, which are bracing even if they seem rather negligible. Long before William Hurt’s psychology professor ever begins to exhibit some fundamental changes, Russell shoots him standing in a doorway in a fantastic long shot that frames him immediately as the “other.”

And though Hurt can be prone to an exaggerated performance style here in his big-screen debut as Edward Jessup, he’s a generally welcome presence. Intrigued by the possibilities of sensory deprivation and its possible portal to other states of consciousness, Jessup becomes obsessed with the technology despite the concerns of lab partner Arthur (Bob Balaban) and wife Emily (Blair Brown). While Jessup struggles with the ramifications of this potential evolutionary step on the place of religion in one’s life, his body begins to experience the opposite effect — devolving in ways both grotesque and horrifying.

While Chayefsky’s lofty ideas get some play in the film’s first act, the film’s ambitions seem to devolve at the same rate as Jessup’s genetic code. Later scenes where he turns into a primitive, rampaging ape-man and a glob of primordial goo are little more than special effects spectacle, and by today’s standards, look fairly silly. The film’s emotional fever pitch it hits in its climax isn’t unwelcome, and Russell certainly knows how to wring the most out of such a sequence, but following up the more cerebral promises of the first act, it’s a letdown.

The Blu-ray Disc

Featuring a 1080p high definition transfer in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Altered States has been given a solid, no-frills upgrade to high-def. Clarity and detail are strong, while conditions of the materials ensure that colors can look a little muddy in lowlight. Image softness is a regular occurrence from time to time, but the image is generally sharp overall. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is crystal clear, thwarted only by some mumbly performances on brief occasions.

Special Features

Only the theatrical trailer, presented in standard definition.

The Bottom Line

By no means a totally successful sci-fi outing, Altered States has enough germs of good ideas to remain worth a look, and it’s Blu-ray transfer is solid.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.
  • Nice review – I’ve always had a soft spot for this movie. Do you know if the novel was based on the work of John C. Lilly? Some major crossover if it wasn’t.

    You’re completely right that it’s wildly uneven, and the second half undercuts the first by straying from the psychological story in favour of external sci-fi/horror schtick. But I don’t know how they could have wrapped up the story in a cinematic way, really.

    Too bad there’s no extras on the Blu-ray. I think I’ll wait to buy the next version. Still, a good one to rent.